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Moving with Meaning: Interviewing PhotoShelter UPAA Grant Winner Matt Stamey

We spoke with Matt Stamey, PhotoShelter UPAA grant winner, about his submission and what the university photographer community means to him.

Every year, at the University Photographers’ Association of America (UPAA) Symposium, we award one photographer the PhotoShelter UPAA Grant, a monetary prize to celebrate this passionate community and assist in funding a creative endeavor for one special honoree.

In 2023, we awarded this grant to Matt Stamey, Marketing and Communications Photographer at Santa Fe College, photojournalism teacher, and award-winning freelance photographer.

We interviewed Matt about his submission, the impact this grant had on his ongoing passion project, and what the UPAA community means to him.

What does the UPAA Symposium and this community mean to you as a university photographer?

Matt Stamey: Man, that’s hard to put into words. I had heard of UPAA before joining. Then I went to my first symposium and it was like a reunion of people I didn’t know, but it was such a community of like-minded folks with the same aspirations, gripes, and struggles. A lot of us are one-or-two-people-shows in our departments, so it’s just great to get away from work and be around all those folks that I can bounce ideas off of.

Every year I go, I come with a mission; I’m gonna ask everybody about a specific topic, I’m gonna learn how to do headshots better, I’m gonna learn how to do video better, I’m gonna talk to them about photo releases, etc. So you can really come and connect.

Now that I’ve been going for four or five years,  it’s just like a family reunion that you come back to, to hang out, talk shop, and geek out over photography stuff. And then it inspires you to crush it for the rest of the year. It brings you that spark that hopefully will last for the year, because you know all your colleagues are doing it and you see them doing it, too.

Tell us about your submission for the 2023 PhotoShelter UPAA Grant.

Matt Stamey: I ran the Chicago Marathon in October of 2022. 

“By November [2022], Thanksgiving of that year, I was sick. Cancer had really taken over by then and I was having trouble breathing and walking. So, by Christmas of that year, I was starting chemotherapy. And once I started chemo, things started turning around.”

Matt Stamey

On January 1st every year, the Florida Track Club has a mile race that we host. I do a lot of work with them, help with their marketing, and assist with their events. I was there photographing it, having just started chemo. And I was basically sitting on the edge of the track taking pictures because that’s all I could do. Afterwards, I told my friend, ‘I want to run a mile, let me see if I can still run a mile.’ Keep in mind, a few months prior, I just ran 26, no problem. It took me around 16 minutes and 30 seconds to get four times around a track.

After that my friend and coach challenged me to move a mile, somehow, every day. While I was going through chemo, he gave me that little challenge to intentionally move every day. And so some days it was just a 30 minute dog walk. Sometimes I hopped on my bike, I went paddling one time, and just moved intentionally.

I started that second day, January 2nd, and I took a picture while I did it. And I was like,

“‘Okay, let me combine my running, my movement, and some photos.’ So, it became this fun little personal project because I wasn’t working much at the time. And that kept my creative brain growing, my photography brain churning, and there was no agenda, no deadline.”

Matt Stamey

While I’m moving for this mile, what do I see? It was just really simple. And it was all with my phone. That kept me going from January through April, four months of doing that every day. And I compiled a neat little collection of images from that, completely personal. I didn’t care what anybody thought, it just kept me going. And when I finished that, about a year ago now, I wrapped up that project and shared the story as my submission for the grant.

What was the impact of this grant for you? How did you end up using the money? 

Matt Stamey: I went to the symposium and won the grant, which was amazing. That caught me off guard, for sure.

“PhotoShelter gave me a check and I turned that check into a lens. But that’s surface level. Deeper than that, seeing last year and previous year winners’ projects and other photographers’ work motivated me to do something more.”

Matt Stamey

And so, the idea of movement and using movement to get through things really interested me. I thought, ‘You know what? Let me photograph movement, and different people using movement to get through struggles in life because that’s what I did.’ It was so much more personal and it means so much more to me because it’s what I went through.

 I wanted to show what other people do, too. I’ve done three stories so far. I photographed three different people who have gone through something or are going through something and have used different forms of movement to get through it. A couple of them are cancer survivors and one of them is my coach. He’s using movement to help others get through things.

I don’t know where this project is going or what it’s gonna look like. But I like telling their stories. My vision is a book. I think it’d be an awesome reference book to have at doctors offices, or a therapist’s office. And, I know, as a patient, I was told a lot, ‘Be sure to eat right and exercise.’ Well what does that look like?

Exercise can be rock climbing, gardening, drumming, swimming. There are so many different forms and they’re all therapeutic, they’re all helpful.

So why not show people? Hypothetically: Here’s somebody who went through a divorce and used rock climbing to get through that tough patch. Whatever it may be. There are endless possibilities of combinations. And so I think it would be awesome to have a book with testimonials, but also a website where that work can live and breathe, and I can feature stories as they come and go.

“Overall, the grant was a spark for me. The lens is just a tool, but it was the encouragement and the support, and being recognized at the symposium that was a unique moment because I didn’t expect it. I also thought, I’ve got to fulfill this now. I’ve been given this gift of support and money and I can’t just sit back. So that, plus my experience in 2023 of everything I went through, pushed me to start this project. It’s going to be something someday.”

Matt Stamey

What would you say to inspire somebody to apply for the grant?

Matt Stamey: Why not? A lot of us are former newspaper folks, we’re all storytellers, and we all have those to-do, need-to-get-them-done assignments. They don’t fill you up. They don’t fill your soul.

Use this as inspiration, motivation, and that spark to chase after the assignment that does fill you up. I’ve got three days of headshots coming up this week. I’ve got to do it. It’s part of the job, but sorry, headshots don’t fulfill me as a photographer. They get the job done. They don’t fill me up.

And so that’s what this spark was. I could use this grant and this motivation to feed my soul as a photographer and chase that story, whatever it may be.

“Everybody has a story. Everybody’s gone through something and everybody has interests or hobbies. I tell my students this all the time when they’re looking for photo stories. I ask them, ‘What are you interested in? What are your hobbies? Go photograph that, because you’ve already got an interest. You’ve already got an investment in it.’”

Matt Stamey

Click here to learn more about the University Photographers’ Association of America (UPAA)

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